Dateline: Chattanooga, TN
Times Free Press
To most people, mustaches haven’t been “in” since shag carpeting and lava lamps were considered stylish.
But in law enforcement, scores of officers across the county, including Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper, Deputy Police Chief Mark Rawlston, Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long and Chief Deputy Allen Branum, sport fuzz on their upper lips.
“When I think of a police officer, I think of a guy with a mustache,” said Chattanooga Police Department spokesman Sgt. Rick Mincy.
It was only in recent years that the sergeant shaved his own ’stache — and only because it was graying. “That was like one of the requirements when I came here,” he said.
Even the online slang dictionary urbandictionary.com has an entry for “cop stache.”
“If a cop doesn’t have a mustache, he’s a rookie,” quips the entry. It offers this advice: “Never trust a cop without a mustache!”
Aaron Perlut, executive director of the St. Louis-based American Mustache Institute, said the end of the 70s, to a degree, was the death knell for the mustache.
“(Among) the few souls brave enough to continue wearing mustaches were those in law enforcement,” he said.
Wearing them even while out of style “indicates a strong sense of self and a strong sense of self-confidence,” he said.
Portrayed — and parodied — on television and in movies for decades — think “NYPD Blue,” “Reno 911!” or “Beverly Hills Cop” — the connection between mustaches and police officers has not gone unnoticed.
Entering the words “police mustache” into a Google search yields 827,000 hits. A number of those are online question-and-answer forums or blogs devoted to the topic.
Some online posters surmise the trend began with lawmen in the Wild West, and others with European military officers who maintained the style when they became police officers and constables upon returning home from war in the 1800s.
Others see police mustaches as a result of “peer pressure,” a “barrier … psychologically … between ‘us and them,’” or a “flavor saver for their donuts.”
The average Chattanooga police officer is a bit more matter-of-fact about his facial hair.
“I wear it here,” said Sgt. Tommy Meeks, pointing to his lip, “because I don’t have any here,” he continued, gesturing toward a balding scalp.
Chattanooga Fire Capt. Eddy Williams said mustaches are equally as popular among firefighters, who according to popular folklore began sporting hair on their upper lips to filter smoke in the days before the modern breathing apparatus.
“I think police officers do it just to emulate firefighters,” Capt. Williams said, noting that he has had his mustache since 1974 — “longer than I’ve had my wife.”
Sheriff’s Sgt. Robert Starnes says his mustache makes his “baby face” look more mature. Sheriff’s Lt. Ron Winkler, on the other hand, believes his makes him look “young and sexy.”
Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Whiteside says the police mustache has become a symbol of edgy authority to some.
“During the 60s, it was a rebellion-type thing, and it just carried on over into the profession,” he said.
Daniel DeVries, a hair designer at J. Smith Salon on Signal Mountain, sees mustaches as a “macho thing.”
“It tends to be military, macho,” he said. “It’s definitely the opposite of metrosexual.”
Chattanooga police Officer Wayne Jefferson agrees.
“I think it’s a man thing more than anything else,” said the subtly mustachioed officer, who added that he shaves, trims and regrows his periodically for a change.
Mustache makeovers are in fact common among officers looking for a way to express themselves through physical appearance, according to Sgt. Mincy.
The upper lip has become sacred territory for police, he said, as it is one of the few places — in public view, at least — where male officers can govern their own appearance.
Most law enforcement departments across the country, including the Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, prohibit officers who are not working undercover from maintaining facial hair other than mustaches trimmed above the lip line.
The sheriff’s department policy even specifically prohibits “Fu Man Chu and handlebar styles, etc.”
So, facing restrictions on clothing, earrings, hair and sideburn length, visible tattoos and even fingernails, officers are eager to cultivate a bit of personality on their faces, Sgt. Mincy said.
The right to self-expression, however, comes at a price: mustache maintenance, cautioned Chattanooga Police Lt. Tim Carroll.
“It’s a lot of trouble, believe it or not, to keep it trimmed,” he said.
Veteran officers hope officers just entering the field will not let the tradition die, Sgt. Mincy said.
“I’m seeing a trend of the newer officers coming in with no mustache,” he said. “But they’re going to grow a mustache before they leave here. … Mustaches never go out of style,” he insisted.
Mr. Perlut also is confident that mustaches are here to stay.
“The current generation is a very expressive generation, and one great thing about a mustache is that it’s a great way to express how you feel,” he said. “This is a great generation to bring the mustache back. We feel like the pendulum is on the upswing.”
Though new Sheriff’s Deputy Mickey Rountree’s fellow officers joke that, at 22, he is too young to grow a mustache, he said it is “just personal preference” not to wear one.